An outsider’s perspective after 3.5 years in Istanbul and 1.5 weeks in southwestern Germany.
Interacting with cashiers
Turkey: Ah yes, here is an obviously foreign person, I shall talk to her with minimum expectations of her knowing Turkish. Oh, she speaks some Turkish! What a pleasant and unexpected surprise. I will laugh gleefully in her face at how cute it is that she’s trying.
Germany: Here is a normal German person, I shall speak German to her… wait, what is she saying? Is she trying to speak German? Are the words coming out of her mouth a known human language? *narrows eyes* Is she foreign, or perhaps just very, very stupid?
Hard liquor in grocery stores
Turkey: There is one tiny shelf behind the cash register, please request what you want and then provide your life savings, dignity, and firstborn child’s soul as tender.
Germany: Feel free to peruse our aisles of booze at your leisure, or if you are pressed for time, grab one of the many travel-sized bottles located near the cash register for your convenience, that will be €1.79, enjoy 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
Turkey: 45°F (7°C) and rainy
Germany: 45°F (7°C) and rainy
Passing strangers in the aisles of stores
Turkey: You in my space, BITCH? YOU WANT SOME OF THIS? *takes off gloves, throws them on the ground, prepares for sparring and body checks*
Germany: No eye contact, ever
Turkey: Many Turkish phrases repeated several times, multitudes of cheek kissing and waving at the door
Germany: Awkward eye contact
Turkey: Oh, you want to keep your forests undeveloped? Bwahahahahahaha! You’re HILARIOUS.
Germany: YOU get a forest! And YOU get a forest! EVERYBODY gets a forest!!!!
Windows in apartments
Turkey: Silky, draping, sumptuous curtains; fantastic for adding ambiance and elegance to your home
Germany: Very functional, industrial-style electronic blackout shades; fantastic for pretending you live in a cave
Turkey: Tuna Can and Ufuk are TOTALLY legit and normal names; also, let’s make the words for “bread” and “man” almost identical so foreigners can embarrass themselves by asking for fresh, hot men at the bakery
Germany: Let’s just go ahead and put the word “fahrt” on all our traffic and pedestrian signs
In August of 2014, my boyfriend (now husband) and I moved to Istanbul, Turkey from North Carolina; tomorrow, movers are coming to our apartment and we’ll begin the process of relocating to Germany, arriving to our new town a couple of days before the new year.
This has been a long time in the making, between the planning and figuring out logistics, but it didn’t really seem real until recently. Suddenly, what once felt abstract now feels very concrete and immediate. We’re doing it. We’re moving countries, again, and will be dealing with everything that comes along with that– a new language, new culture, making a new social group, etc.
I find myself thinking that it has to be easier this time around, since I’ve already gone through the process once and know what to expect. I know that learning the language won’t be instantaneous and I’ll have to be patient, and not be afraid to make mistakes while I’m learning. I know that there will be a million cultural idiosyncrasies that I could never imagine and that I will have to learn how to navigate. I know that I can’t take anything for granted or assume that things will be the way that I’m used to, even small things. I haven’t spent much time in Germany– only a long weekend in Berlin. I’ve never been to the small city in southwest Germany that we’re moving to. (Although my husband has several times for work, and assures me it’s very nice.) Germany is almost a complete blank slate in my mind at this point and I know the only way to get used to it is through immersion, and figuring it out as I go, and I know that requires patience, patience, patience.
Adjusting to Turkey was a journey. I had no idea what I was doing when I moved here. And that was fine– sometimes you just have to take the plunge. I went through a cycle that I later learned is pretty common when it comes to moving to a new country: things were awesome at first, then got difficult, then got easier, then got difficult again, and finally really evened out and became normal, easy life at after about a year and a half.
For me, the “frustration/annoyance with everyday differences” was the grocery store. I never would have guessed that would be my biggest stumbling block when adapting to life in Istanbul– I had done a fair amount of traveling and had studied abroad before this move, and had gone grocery shopping in other countries without any problems, but our local grocery store in Istanbul was an entirely different story. We lived in an old, busy central neighborhood, and our local grocery store was VERY small and VERY crowded, and as it turns out, the social rules dictating personal space are very different in Turkey than in the US, which made squeezing around the tiny aisles with a million old Turkish aunties who had no problem throwing some elbows or bumping into me really stressful. Plus, you bag your own groceries here, and people are not shy about almost physically pushing you out of the way if you’re going too slow, so checking out and having to converse in a new language, handle a new currency, and bag my groceries as quickly as possible all at once with a bunch of pushy people bearing down on me was… well, it was an adventure. And not really a good one.
But I adjusted. I learned to be quicker when counting money, and I learned to speak up when someone was crowding me. Life here got easier again. The “confronting deeper cultural/personal issues” came when I had my first job here, which ostensibly was in English but I needed a level of Turkish to communicate with the support staff which was beyond what I could speak at the time, providing almost daily frustrations in addition to adapting to a new work environment, with a new work culture. But then that eventually got easier, too.
I’m hoping it goes more quickly in Germany, now that I know what to expect. However, there is one huge thing that is different with this move: I’m five months pregnant this time around, which completely shifts the planning and focus of the move. This time we’re less concerned with living in a cool neighborhood downtown with lots of bars and shops, and more concerned with having an apartment big enough to house a newborn and hopefully guests as well. I’m spending a lot of time researching healthcare and birth procedures in Germany, and looking for mom groups I can join in our city. When we were moving to Istanbul, I was so excited about the ADVENTURE of it all, the mystery of a new city and the excitement of discovering it, and while there is certainly some of that this time– I’ve already made a list of places in surrounding countries I want to visit, thanks to the fantastic train system in Europe– I’m probably spending most of my time fantasizing about all the green space and parks in Germany where I can take walks with the baby. After living in Istanbul with its 15+ million people and nonstop traffic, I’m looking forward to living in a quieter, more peaceful place.
There are a million things that I will miss about living in Turkey. I think there is literally nothing better than a waterfront meal at a fish restaurant in summer, either on the Bosphorus in Istanbul or on the coast, and there is no beating the amazing and unique history of Istanbul. I’ll miss being able to pop off to either the Mediterranean or Aegean coast for a quick weekend trip, or randomly stumbling across ancient ruins and being able to explore them whenever we want. I’ll miss the fantastic Turkish breakfasts and the ferry rides. I’ll miss the street parades and the simit-sellers yelling outside my apartment, the strolls on the seaside, and the friendly street cats who are just waiting to be petted. And I’m sure there are a million other things I’ll miss that I don’t even realize yet. It’s always that way when you make a big move. Although it’s not like we’ll never be back– my husband’s family is here, so we will always have a connection to Turkey.
Right now I’m feeling very grateful for the experience of living in Istanbul and everything it’s taught me, and very excited about this next step in our lives.
This past weekend my husband and I went to go see the new Murder on the Orient Express movie. It was about what I expected, based on reviews I’d read– the acting was fun, the costumes and scenery were fantastic, the story itself was enjoyable if a bit underwhelming. It’s more a homage to the glamour of the 1930s than it is a riveting detective movie, even with Kenneth Branagh’s stellar performance as Hercule Poirot.
One thing I did like about it is that it’s perhaps the first movie I’ve seen that takes place in Istanbul (partially, for a brief bit at the beginning of the film) that didn’t make me want to tear my hair out. Most Western movies use Istanbul through a heavy lens of orientalism— making Istanbul seem exotic just for the sake of being exotic, of attributing various aspects of Arab culture to the city that don’t even exist here (reminder: Turks and Arabs have distinct languages, religious denominations, and cultures), that sort of thing. There was none of that in this movie, thankfully.
Something I didn’t know until last year is that you can still go to the train station in Istanbul that was one of the endpoints of the Orient Express, and I only found out because we happened to stumble across it while out in the city one day. It’s a beautiful old building, and we wandered over to get a better look at it before realizing what it is. It’s situated in the city’s historic peninsula, and is surrounded by bazaars and mosques and monuments that are hundreds and thousands of years old, so it’s kind of easy to miss even though it does have that old-school glamour that the time period is known for.
Sirkeci Station was built in 1888 by the Ottoman Empire, who decided that Istanbul needed to be connected to Europe after the Crimean War. The station ran both local and international trains. The train lines changed frequently over the years, and eventually a restaurant was added that became a popular spot for artists, writers, and journalists in the 1950s and 1960s. The Orient Express line to Istanbul was shut down in 1977 (later, the other stations were shut down as well in other countries, ending the famous route), and all international lines were shut down from Sirkeci until just this past year. Now, a few routes are running to cities in the Balkans.
When we were at the station last spring, they were doing restoration on the facade of the building, and certain parts of the station were locked/unavailable for tourists. Still, the architecture is beautiful, and it’s worth wandering into when you’re in the area– and if you’re a tourist in Istanbul, you’ll definitely be in the area, since it’s close to the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Blue Mosque. The restaurant still exists and you can sit down for lunch, or even just for tea and a snack. The station was decently busy but not overly crowded when we were there, both with tourists and with locals, and at one point a group bike tour pedaled through.
And if you like this kind of architecture and the glamour from that time period, another place to visit is the Pera Palace Hotel and Museum— it’s where Agatha Christie used to hang out and write when she was in Istanbul. It’s a beautiful building and one of my favorite art museums in Istanbul. It’s not particularly close to Sirkeci Station– it’s across the Golden Horn, located just off the famous Istiklal Street. Istiklal sadly has seen better days and is definitely not what it once was– nowadays, it’s mostly construction and empty storefronts– but the Pera Palace is still there and still stunning, and I definitely recommend it if you have a free afternoon.
Istanbul is such a diverse city, and sometimes you can find the most interesting bits of history when you look past the mosques and bazaar.
I leave in a couple of days for a two-week trip to the US to see my family. Two weeks seems like a lot of time but it always goes quickly, and it’s never enough time to see the people I want to see; nevertheless, I’m looking forward to it.
I’ve been living abroad for three years now and it’s funny, the things I end up missing. It’s never the things that I thought I would miss. (This isn’t including people, of course– I always knew I would miss my friends and family.) I was pretty homesick my first year in Turkey but it got a lot better after some adjustment, although Christmases away are still pretty hard. But the things I miss most are things that I barely even noticed while living in the US.
I miss peanut butter.
I miss being able to walk into any clothing or shoe store and finding my size. (Turkish women are tiny!… They don’t even sell my shoe size here. The woes of being an almost-5’9” American woman living in Istanbul.)
I miss being able to find lots of different cuisines at the grocery store.
I miss stores and cafes opening earlier in the morning.
I miss central A/C.
I miss closets! Oh how I miss closets. One wardrobe is not enough storage for two people living in an apartment, and I don’t even know how families with small kids manage. Where do other people store their vacuum cleaners? The fake Christmas tree between seasons? (Okay, maybe not too many Turkish households have to worry about that one…) The sports equipment? The luggage? I NEED CLOSETS IN MY LIFE, DAMMIT.
But the thing I miss most of all is…. driving to Target.
Let me explain.
When I was living in the US, I didn’t have any particular affinity for Target. I liked Target a regular amount– I went there when I needed to, but I never went around talking enthusiastically about how much I loved it or how great it was. It was just a store I went to sometimes.
But now, when I think about things I’m excited to do when I go home, one of the first things that pops into my mind is getting in the car, driving to Target, and walking around.
I think it’s less because Target is just that awesome, and more because it represents everything that I can’t do in Istanbul. Istanbul is a city of about 15,000,000 people, which is actually probably a low estimate, so hopping in a car and doing *anything* becomes difficult. Istanbul traffic is horrendous. This sometimes makes running mundane errands difficult. We try to do most of our errands in our neighborhood, where we can walk to the stores, but on the occasions when we need to go to a bigger store elsewhere in the city, we take a deep breath, gird our loins, and accept it’s probably going to be at least half a day of battling with traffic and crowds. There’s nothing fun about it.
And Target has everything– one stop and you’re done. Again, this is very different from Istanbul, where we end up going to multiple stores to find the things we need.
So the thought of getting in a car and driving on calm, mostly clear roads to Target and being able to get everything in one fell swoop sounds almost Utopic.
Of course, there are good things about living abroad that balance out the things I miss– I might miss Target, but not enough to move back for it. And there are things that utterly confuse me about the US now when I visit. (The serving sizes are huge! … Why is the smallest size of a milkshake 16 ounces? You can’t even get a milkshake that big in Turkey! And why oh why does someone need that many different options for toothpaste?)
Bags are (almost) packed, passport is in my purse… I’m ready to go.
I have a love/hate relationship with Sultanahmet, otherwise known as the historic peninsula in Istanbul, where most of the oldest sites and tourist attractions are. On one hand, it’s a beautiful and deeply historic neighborhood, and everywhere you turn there are buildings and monuments that are hundreds and thousands of years old. It is where the Grand Bazaar, Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque are located. It’s clean, well-kept, and beautifully landscaped. It is worth seeing at least once in your lifetime.
On the other hand, the areas around the ferry stations and Spice Bazaar are so crowded, both with tourists and sketchy people trying to scam the tourists, that walking through it all to get to the other sites is irritating at best and deeply unpleasant at worst. The scammers don’t disappear in the other areas and you have to be careful of who you talk to, which gives it a seedier feeling than other parts of the city. And the one time I went to Sultanahmet without my husband– I took my (female) cousins when they were visiting– men yelled after us and harassed us all day long, which was infuriating and embarrassing since I was trying to show my cousins how great Turkey can be. (Never judge a city or a culture based on the most touristy area; it seems to be where jerks tend to congregate.)
Still, I end up going to Sultanahmet about once a year because the sites are too amazing to stay away from for long, and this past weekend my husband and I took the ferry over. We went to the Basilica Cistern, which is normally amazing but is currently undergoing a renovation that will last until 2019, so it didn’t quite have its full glory. Still, the Medusa heads are always interesting to see.
Afterwards we wandered over to Hagia Sophia and took in the sights there, including petting the cat that lives in the 1,500 year old church-turned-mosque-turned museum.
And then we decided to check out one of the lesser-known mosques, Süleymaniye Cami (cami means mosque in Turkish), and it turned out to be the highlight of the day.
It’s easy to find Süleymaniye Mosque: you directly see if from the ferry area or the Galata Bridge, depending on how you go to Sultanahmet. It sits on top of a hill overlooking the Golden Horn and cuts an impressive image even from far away. I remember staring at it during my first trip to Istanbul in 2013 and thinking, “Huh, that looks important.”
And it is important. It was built by the most famous architect of the Ottoman Empire, Mimar Sinan, in the 16th century, and it is the burial place of the Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (hence the name) and his equally-famous wife Sultan Hürrem. (Their story has been made even more famous by the TV show Muhteşem Yuzyıl, or the Magnificent Century, which oddly enough is available on Netflix in America but not in Turkey.) They each have their own buildings with their tombs inside.
Süleymaniye Mosque’s beauty starts before you even go inside the building. Since it is on top of a hill, it offers an amazing view of Istanbul, including the Golden Horn, Galata Tower, Bosphorus, and the first bridge of the city that connects Europe to Asia. It feels like you’re on top of the world. And the grounds are meticulously kept, with lush green lawns and a beautiful cemetery.
On the day that we were there, it was not crowded at all, and there were very few tourists. There were a lot of Turkish families that were lounging on picnic blankets on the lawn, in the shade of the many trees, and their children were running around. There were no scammers and the people working at the mosque were friendly and laid-back. It had a completely different vibe than the tourist-inundated Blue Mosque, where workers have to be strict to control the throngs of people.
Inside, the mosque has been restored as recently as 2007, and it doesn’t look five hundred years old. It has a red-orange carpet and the typical tiles and calligraphy of Ottoman-style mosques, but its main dome is interesting and sets it apart from others: it was destroyed by a fire in the 19th century and when it was rebuilt, they painted it in the Italian style that was popular at the time in Europe but is rarely seen in Turkey. They also have young, very friendly, and English-speaking volunteers who are happy to answer any questions you have.
(As a bit of an aside that might be helpful for people who are visiting Turkey for the first time, here are some tips for visiting mosques: women should cover heads and shoulders; short sleeves are okay; shorts and short skirts are not; some mosques will not let in anyone who has the bottom part of their legs exposed, including men in knee-length shorts, but it really differs from mosque to mosque with how strict they are with that. You have to take off your shoes before going in and every mosque is VERY strict with this. There will always be a place for you to leave your shoes close to the door; some mosques will let you carry them in as long as they are in a place bag, or if you are just carrying them in your hand, make sure the soles are pointing up. If you are wearing shorts/a tank top/don’t have a scarf to cover your head, they will have clothes and scarves there that you can borrow–I have seen many men wearing borrowed skirts over their shorts in mosques–but I recommend just taking a more modest outfit with you to wear on the day(s) that you will be visiting those places, and sticking a scarf in your bag to throw over your head. Also, there are usually separate entrances for people going into the mosque to pray and those who are just visiting, so follow the signs, which will most likely be in English.)
I’m really glad that we decided to branch out a bit and visit someplace new. I definitely recommend going to the better-known Blue Mosque because it’s absolutely stunning and worth seeing, but the Süleymaniye Mosque is worth a visit too, and is especially great if you’ve grown tired of the crazy atmosphere and crowds at the tourist sites. This was also a really good reminder that even though I’ve been living in Istanbul for almost three years now, there are still so many places here I haven’t seen. Sometimes it’s fun to go sightseeing in your own city.
And overall, the thing that struck me most about the Süleymaniye Mosque was just how quiet and calm it was, up on the hill all by itself. In a city of 15+ million people, that is worth its weight in gold and jewels; even a sultan could tell you that.
I was cooking dinner tonight and as I got a lemon and a container of yogurt out of the fridge, it occurred to me that I use both of those things almost every day now– a habit that I only picked up after moving to Istanbul. It got me thinking and I thought it would be fun to write up a post about some of the awesome food culture in Turkey. Enjoy!
1) Put Lemon On Everything
Cut open a lemon and give it a squeeze over whatever you’re eating. Seriously, it works with almost anything, and really brightens up flavors.
2) Put Yogurt On Everything, Too
One of the best things I’ve learned from living in Turkey is that yogurt is super versatile, not just for a sweet snack with tons of added sugar. Turks use regular plain yogurt (sour-tasting) and süzme yogurt (strained yogurt, similar in texture to Greek yogurt) as a regular part of meals– both by itself, with spices (I love putting a bit of garlic powder and mint in plain süzme yogurt and eating it as a snack or a side), dolloped on meat, lentils, into soups…. it’s everywhere in the cuisine here, and it’s delicious.
3) Accept That Your Fish Stares Back At You
Fish in Turkey are almost always served whole, with head and scales and tail, and you de-bone it yourself and pick out the meat. It’s also common to get little fried anchovies called hamsi and eat them whole, even the bones. The first time or two it’s weird, but then you get used to it (mostly because it tastes so good).
4) Realize That Small Dishes Are Amazing
Meyhane is a type of restaurant where you get a bunch of mezes (small dishes similar to Spanish tapas) for the table to share, along with a bottle or two of raki (anise-flavored liquor similar to Greek ouzo) and each person typically gets their own fish course. However, I love mezes so much that my husband and I often skip the fish course and just have a long dinner of nothing but side dishes, and enjoy the heck out of it. This is my favorite kind of Turkish dining.
5) Carve Time Out Of Your Weekend For A Long, Glorious Breakfast
Turkish breakfasts are my other favorite kind of dining here. Like in meyhanes, proper Turkish breakfasts are long and made up of many different small dishes. Of course most Turks don’t eat like that every day (and who has time for that before going to work?), but oh man, Turkish breakfast is like brunch on steroids.
6) Cut Down On Sugar
There isn’t much added sugar in Turkish foods, not even really in their baked goods. Most of their cookies and cakes are way less sweet than their American counterparts. There are exceptions to this, of course– like birthday cakes with lots of frosting, and tres leches cake has become very popular here– but generally cakes don’t have frosting at all. When desserts are super sweet, it’s usually because it’s been soaked in syrup.
7) Drink Tea, Not Coffee
Turkish coffee is a cultural institution and great (albeit very, very strong– imagine a shot of espresso with the grounds still in it), but it’s usually only drunk after meals to help with digestion. Instead, Turks typically drink black tea in the mornings and throughout the day. The tea is strong too, brewed for 15-20 minutes in a double boiler until a concentrate is made and then mixed with warm water according to taste, and is drunk in little tulip-shaped glasses.
8) Be Open To Weird Flavor/Texture Combinations
There are some Turkish dishes that most Americans would never imagine working. Some of them I love, like künefe, a dessert that has melty cheese surrounded by shredded wheat, submerged in syrup, and topped with kaymak (a kind of sweet, creamy butter) and sometimes pistachios. If it sounds heavy, it is; don’t expect to be able to move afterwards. But it’s delicious! Others, like ayran, a frothy yogurt drink with salt, have been more of an acquired taste. Regardless, there are a lot of flavor combinations that seemed weird when I moved here that now seem totally normal and appealing.
9) Put Egg On Your Pizza
Or pide, to be more specific. Pide is the Turkish version of pizza, and it’s the same kind of idea– there’s dough, and you put stuff on top of the dough, and you bake it. Simple. There are some differences, though, like the fact that pide doesn’t have tomato sauce. Another (amazing) difference is that you can get an egg on your pide. Either scrambled or just kind of cracked on top. Such a great idea, I don’t know why more cultures haven’t picked this up.
10) Speaking Of Eggs… Cook Them With Peppers And Tomatoes
I’ll be honest, even after two and a half years here, I don’t know how to cook many Turkish dishes– a lot of them require lots of hands-on work and long cooking times, and, well, I’m more about the quick dinners after work. But one thing that is super easy to make and super delicious is menemen, where eggs are scrambled with chopped peppers, tomatoes, and olive oil (or butter). My husband used to make an improvised version of this using salsa when we lived in the US, but real Turkish menemen is heavier on the green peppers. You can also add different cheeses and meats to it if you want, or you can eat it plain. Here is an English-language version of the recipe from Ozlem’s Turkish Table.
11) Roll Your Bagels In Sesame Seeds
Turkish simit are like thin, crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside bagels that have been covered in sesame seeds. We used to find frozen ones in a Turkish store in North Carolina and they are worth the trek if you have an international foods store in your area. Or you can try to make them at home, if you’re feeling ambitious.
12) Eat Raw Meat
Okay, not really… but there is a dish called çığ köfte, which literally translates into “raw meatball,” and did indeed used to be made out of raw red meat. Now, though, there’s a wonderful vegetarian version made out of bulgar mixed with bread crumbs, tomato paste, walnuts, and spices. Typically it’s eaten wrapped in a lettuce leaf and squeezed with lemon. It’s a great light lunch or dinner. My back-up life plan is to move to the US and market çığ köfte to hipsters as exotic health food (vegan! served with lemon and lettuce! made with exotic oriental spices) and charge them a lot of money for it without mentioning that it’s one of the cheapest foods you can get in Turkey.
13) Load Up On Lots Of Fresh Fruits And Vegetables
Unlike in the United States, fresh produce is one of the cheapest foods you can buy in Turkey, and there are vegetable and fruit stands literally on almost every corner of Istanbul, so it’s easy to grab anything you need on the way home.
There are so many more things I could talk about, but these are the things that immediately came to mind. Hopefully it inspires some people to either book a trip to Istanbul or maybe just find a Turkish restaurant in their area.
During lunch today with a coworker, our conversation turned to the different places that we’ve lived. I’m American, and have lived up multiple places on the East Coast– from small rural towns to big cities– and have been living in Istanbul since 2014. My coworker is Australian but lived in London for six years before moving to Istanbul in 2016. The conversation turned to how difficult it can be to move someplace new as an adult, specifically how difficult it can be to make friends. One thing we agreed on: making friends in Istanbul has been far easier than any other place we’ve lived, in large part because there is a thriving expat community here and everyone is looking for friends.
I went to university about an hour outside of Washington DC and then moved to Boston after graduation with two of my college roommates. Making friends in high school and college is easy because you spend all day with hundreds of people your age, and you’re bound to like at least a couple of them. There are also school-organized social events specifically created to let you meet and bond with people. It’s a whole different ballgame as an adult without that scaffolding– it’s up to you, and you alone. I loved living in Boston and did make some casual acquaintances through writing groups, but since I was living with my two best friends, I never bothered getting that close to anyone else; I was already having all of my social and emotional needs met.
That changed completely when I moved to North Carolina for graduate school. I moved by myself and lived by myself– my first time living without roommates. I was lonely and had a really hard time making friends. My grad program was small, almost everyone was older than me, everyone was married or in a serious relationship, and many of them had kids. I was a very single 24-year-old who didn’t have much extra time for socializing, given my coursework. I lived in North Carolina for five years and did end up making absolutely wonderful, close friends there, both in grad school and then later at my job, but it took awhile and I felt very isolated for a long time before finally finding a social group.
Then I moved to Istanbul, and making friends here has been so easy. I was looking online for a local writers group to join, and in the process I stumbled upon a women-only expat group. I joined the group, went to one of their social get-togethers a week or so later, and BOOM, met my first batch of friends– out of that first group of maybe ten or twelve women, a couple become close friends and I kept in touch/socially hung out with a few others. Later, I went to other social gatherings put together by the expat group and continued meeting people. I wasn’t working my first year here because it took nine months to get a work visa, so I had plenty of time to socialize and ended up meeting dozens of women whom I could call friends.
If you randomly throw fifty women into a room, it doesn’t mean that they will all get along, or have anything in common. However, it’s different when you’re an expat. There is something– a few somethings, really– about being a stranger in a strange land that brings people together. Everyone is in the same boat and is building their social network from scratch and looking for friends. We automatically have at least one thing in common: we are the kind of people who are willing to move to a new country. Being so far from your support network means that people are often almost desperate to connect to and talk to people who might understand them. And just the mere fact that you’re both outsiders creates a weird sort of bond; we are yabanci, the Turkish word for foreigners, and that alone makes us identify with one another.
Rather than having difficulty making friends, the problem I’ve run into here is that people come and go quickly. I have made incredible friends here, and watched most of them leave one by one for various reasons– usually for a job in another country. The expat community is transient and friendships often feel like a long goodbye, when it’s known that someone doesn’t have plans to stay.
I’ve become less social these days. I work long hours as a high school teacher and, quite frankly, when I’m not at work wrangling teenagers, I prefer to spend time at home or sightseeing with my husband rather than going to big meet-ups. I also am incredibly lucky to have wonderful coworkers who have become friends, which has at least partially filled the gap of friends who have left. I’m pretty happy with my muted social schedule.
Still, it’s nice to know that in this city 6,000 miles from home, new friendships are waiting in Istanbul’s crowded, hectic streets if I decide to seek them. It’s counter-intuitive, to think that going so far from your own culture would make it easier to make friends, but somehow that’s exactly what happened.